Patrick Lane

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Marilyn Bowering

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Lane's early work struggles to find a sincere language. He tries out modes of speech, tones, roles. There is a hostile/aggressive/macho touch even where he tries for the lyric—bravado substituting for feeling—and an occasional line or poem which learns, under the impetus of betrayal/anger, to say what it means. (p. 26)

His devices, clumsy at first, are sound. They teach him structure, how a change in syntax, the substitution of a word in a familiar phrase, or the reversal of normal perspective, can make something new…. The language gains independence. It has its own drive apart from anything the poet knows he knows. Lane discovers how to elicit meaningful connections (rather than the strained, as in "Krestova Solitaire" or "Bottle Pickers") between animate and inanimate, internal and external. He does so accurately first in a very early poem (from Letters From The Savage Mind …), "The Myth Makers". (p. 27)

Much [in this particular poem] parallels the development of any young poet, but the difference with Lane was his refusal to imitate anything he didn't know firsthand (family, job, no-job), an anti-intellectual/anti-ivory tower stand risking a literature of surfaces, but allowing him to develop slowly, a poetry that is justifiably self-confident. The other factor of interest in the early Lane is his continuing concern to give voice to a community; to be a poet with justification—thus his narrative poems, the looking for something to share poems. He begins with the only sane response there is to being somewhere uncharted. He records placing himself, drawing attention to the details of here. He makes ceremony in everyday life, the ceremony beaten, often, by the banality of its concerns, but he continues. Gradually these poems become less anecdotal, more fully narrative. The fault of the anecdote is voyeurism (as in "Mountain Oysters" or "Sam Sam The Candy Man"), detachment. Its antidote is not identification, but imagination, compassion. "Grey John" is a fine anecdote/narrative written this way.

The ability to be part rather than watcher is the most significant advance in Lane's poetry. The clean break is at Unborn Things …, though a number of poems in the collection Beware the Months of Fire … show he is capable of doing this. With Unborn Things, confirmed by Albino Pheasants …, he is consistent.

If a narrative is to have a community function, it must have a point, often a moral. The abuse of this form in British Columbia is legion. The purpose of giving "voice" to people by using the material of their working lives is surely to reveal (or discover as is more often necessary) the meaning inherent in such lives, not to perpetuate its technology. It is not the work ethic … that needs elaboration but the connection of living things to living things…. The enshrinement of unintegrated, unconsidered incident may provide brief local excitement, but it is one more warp in the cloth of isolation and exile that we've been busily working these past hundred odd years. Lane understands this, and his imitators should take note. (pp. 28-9)

"Slash Burning on Silver Star", from Albino Pheasants is a remarkable poem, a pivotal poem. With its anger born of difference, of not being one with things, it is an explication, nearly, of the combination narrative/violent/impetus of West Coast poetry…. The hostility is between subject and object, between the place and self. The bond is fear and necessity: the fear—of defeat and of the inevitablity of defeat…. It is self-mutilation with the objective change. It is knowledge of impermanence and ineffectuality, it is inability to do/be anything else. Survival of the...

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self depends on separation from the place; survival depends on the place, whatever self-identity there is depends on the place. There is no Coleridgian "blessing unawares" to heal: no panacea: no apples.

In Unborn Things (both the poem and the book) the separation between self and object is blurred. The earth is not "other". (If you become one with place, you need not fear it.) The myth of the dying/resurrected god emerges as solution. With resurrection, fear and separation lose power…. When Lane takes on this myth, he becomes capable of giving accurate voice to the reference community. He can do so because he is no longer identical with it (and with its concomitant fears). All possibilities, because of regeneration, are available. The transforming poem can be itself and other; its wounds and its healing are one and the same. The place is internal; internalizes.

In the Lane of Albino Pheasants and Unborn Things, there are no more questions and answers (the early Lane providing both), but cycles, seasons, elements…. The poems of Unborn Things are sun poems, or more exactly, of the loss of Sun, of knowledge. They are sensuous, rich and certain, exchanging that knowledge for the irrational, dark-natured Moon knowledge … which develops in Albino Pheasants. The narratives no longer close off …, but widen…. The images are circular: sun, flower, cup. Released from ego totalitarianism, the poems speak with new voices. Lane does with the South American poems what he hasn't yet or can't quite do with Canada. He makes the place timeless, developing a language that suits.

The poems of Albino Pheasants are less lush, simpler, better formed than Unborn Things; reducing to light and dark and to circles bounded and unbounded. Lane recreates a primitive landscape in the classic tradition…. His vocabulary is plainer, strong, life forms simplify—crab/womb/tree/seed. The poems are evocative, and drop into the quietness of mind like stones in a pool. A poem, "Still Hunting", is resonant of a hero's quest, of Japanese painting, even of Tolstoi's "Pilgrim Song." Lane has worked through to certainties—the same he began with—fear and death, but with new names: sameness and change.

What makes these "Lane" poems is an undercutting of the traditionalism which occurs, in most of the poems, with a line or several phrases which "ground" the central mystery to a specific locale. There is an interruption of local colour/dialect/diction to the body of the poem to "place" it. Where this works, as in "And Say of What You See In The Dark", "Albino Pheasants", and Lane's best poem, "When", the result is a balanced, delicate, skillful dance of "interaction of the within and the without". Where it doesn't work, as in "Exile", "Quitting Time", "That Quick and Instant Flight", it often comes close; though at its worst, the result is bathetic. (pp. 29-32)

At the end of eleven years of published poetry, place and placing remain as essential to Lane as at the beginning. He has succeeded in unearthing and voicing some few truths about the meaning of place in terms of the people living there—no small feat. He writes with clarity, with sureness of craft and continues risks with his art. He has maimed if not disabled the habit of self-deceit. His poetry is self-made, self-justified. (p. 33)

Marilyn Bowering, "Pine Boughs and Apple Trees; The Poetry of Patrick Lane," in The Malahat Review (© The Malahat Review, 1978), No. 45, January, 1978, pp. 24-34.

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